Is the Progressive Party Becoming Irrelevant?

It’s hard to look at Tuesday’s results and feel excited for the Progressive Party, a party with a very tarnished brand, a party that purports to help working and low-income residents, but is unable to actually attract said folks to their ranks. While Mayor Weinberger lost 15% in the polls from 2015, Progressives were unable to gain a single council seat, couldn’t field a mayoral candidate, and Brian Pine, a heavy favorite and moderate Progressive-ish candidate, was elected to a left-leaning bastion, where radical Genese Grill came close to beating Councilor Knodell only a year ago.

A large part of third party’s appeal is their unwavering commitment to their principles and strategy. Love or hate them, but at least you know their positions and strategies. Third parties’ influence comes from a small tent – a weakness and an asset – which limits membership but saves energy from engaging in lengthy battles requiring extensive internal compromise towards the ‘middle’. While third parties may have trouble winning statewide office, they can still affect change by being a party that works together and pulls from the left, without having to constantly compromise in ways that left Democrats must.

Atleast that’s how it should work. In practice, the Progressive Party over the last few years, particularly Burlington Progressives, have been entirely unable to agree on anything, and because of this no one knows what they stand for. Who wants to vote for a party that, when push comes to shove, say they support working class folks, but were perfectly okay selling city property to a known slumlord, and those who did object did so from the perspective of not privatizing city property, as opposed to protecting our most vulnerable residents from landlord abuse?

From entirely abandoning beleaguered Mayor Kiss, to disagreements about the mall redevelopment, F-35s, and civilian oversight of our police commission, Progressives are unable to vote together, are unable to put together a competing vision for this city that doesn’t involve isolated opposition, and are therefore an entirely ineffective opposition party. While I am sure that many folks feel that being an opposition party is a bad thing, that’s how a two party system works. If you aren’t in power and you want to regain power, you need to offer a clear competing vision. Otherwise, why would anyone vote for change if most of the time the ‘opposition’ is in agreement with the ‘establishment’?

On top of this, Progressive candidates running in Democratic primaries, along with many longtime Democrats like Tim Ashe and Phillip Baruth receiving the Progressive endorsement (D/P or P/D), not only confuse people on what it means to be Progressive, but also make it incredibly hard to hold any party leaders or elected officials accountable to the party platform. On top of this, the Burlington city party has put very limited resources behind new Progressive candidates, but will mobilize for more established and ‘establishment’ candidates (some of whom won’t even take the Progressive label) like Driscoll, Knodell, Pine, the latter two of whom were also supported by mega-landlord Bissonnette. I have trouble understanding how helping marginalized folks includes working with folks who mass-evict low-income residents.

Outside forces have also hurt the party. Bernie running for President as a Democrat, and Our Revolution primarily supporting progressive Democratic candidates, has quickened the party’s demise. The results from the Ward 8 election, where Socialist Culculsure and independent-left Driscoll won many more votes combined than the Democratic incumbent, but Progressive student candidate Neubieser lost handily to the incumbent ‘independent’ Democrat Roof, show that the party is in dire straights and even students would rather support nominally-independent candidates over Progressive challengers.

I know too many people on the left who have become entirely uninterested in the Progressive Party. If the Progressive Party wants to have a chance of survival they need to shed the older Progressives or those associated with older Progressives (Brian Pine, Councilor Knodell, Council Sharon, and anyone associated with Michael Monte and former Mayor Clavelle aka ‘the Clavelle Wing’, who openly supported Mayor Weinberger last election), many of whom refuse to share meaningful leadership and power with younger members, and they need to start putting priority in supporting newer, younger, and often times further-to-the-left candidates. Otherwise, they should be prepared to be in charge of a party that stands for little and accomplishes even less.

But what do I know, I was just chair of the city party for two incredibly frustrating years, and an unsupported city council candidate.

Is Burlington a welcoming place for everyone?

I ask this not as a thought exercise, or as a way to shame the many hard working folks who do the daily work of social and economic justice in our city, folks who regularly self-reflect on their own privilege and power, but rather as a serious question. Is Burlington welcoming to you? Is it welcoming to those who don’t look or act like you?

I would say, based on interviews with tenants who rented from slumlord Rick Bove, based on the many votes made by our city council and mayor the past 6 years, that Burlington is not a welcoming place for those on the political and economic margins, that Burlington is not a welcoming place to those who neither look nor act like me. It’s not welcoming to people of color, to anyone who is low-income, who is differently-bodied, who is gender nonconforming, and so so many other folks whose voices are regularly ignored or silenced in our city. I wrote this for the folks who do feel welcomed in Burlington.

Burlington is a city that will tell you they believe in economic justice, like raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, lessening the gender and racial pay gap for those who need it most, but then won’t do a single thing to actually raise the economic wellbeing of low-wage workers. Burlington is a city that will say they believe in racial justice, that Black Lives Matter, and yet will support a city council, mayor, and police chief who don’t believe we need civilian oversight of our police officers. Burlington will rally 1,000 strong when Donald Trump comes trolling to town, but when our own police officers kill a man in the New North End in cold blood, when witnesses directly contradict the officers’ testimonies, no one makes a peep. Burlington is a city that will brag about how they help everyone find safe and affordable housing, but will then turn a blind eye to gross housing injustices, a blind eye to slumlords who’s daily crimes cause great suffering to people of color and low income families, women, and the intersectionality of all these folks and others.

People often call me either an idealist or a pessimist, but I am neither. I am a realist who sees the daily injustices in our community and hopes for a more just future, while also recognizing that our city is all too comfortable with the status quo. I see how our elected officials, well-meaning and very privileged, have no clue what it’s like to feel marginalized and powerless in our own community, how they have little trouble saying that Burlington is a great place for everyone to live because they themselves, along with their friends and relatives, do not struggle to regularly feel safe in Burlington, do not struggle to feel economically secure, do not struggle to feel heard.

Burlington, however, is both idealistic and pessimistic. It is full of idealists who on the one hand believe naively, that, if they speak truths out-loud, about their power and privilege, that they are not only absolved of their own complicitness in a grossly inequitable, unjust system, but that their words are just as meaningful and impactful as action. Burlington, on the other hand, is full of pessimists who are so distrustful of their own less fortunate neighbors that they refuse to share meaningful power with them. Instead, they convince themselves that any progress, no matter how small or comforting in its incrementalism, since it does not challenge their own position and power in the community, is better than no progress. But progress within the status quo will not make people’s lives tangentially better, because the progress is for those in power, not for those who suffer.

I would say that it is a matter of time before this city scares off the next generation of folks who would continue Burlington’s tradition as a tolerant, progressive city, but that would be idealistic. In reality, many of those folks have already been scared away, and I have no doubt if we continue to vote to keep the status quo like we did last night, the rest will soon follow.